Eclectic shorts share quarantine protocols

A young Chinese man (Zhang Yu, right) and his son (Zhang Yanbo) struggle to cope with quarantine restrictions in “The Break Away,” part of the anthology The Year of the Everlasting Storm. (Photo courtesy of Neon)

By Richard Ades

The Year of the Everlasting Storm is a collection of seven shorts that are united not so much by theme as by process. Since the titular year is 2020, the seven directors (from five different countries) were instructed to create works without violating COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. The apparent purpose was to show it was still possible to make films during a pandemic.

The result: a group of flicks that are mostly made in cramped quarters, though a couple also branch out into the virtual world. Other than that, they have little in common, which means each one stands alone rather than contributing to a cohesive whole.

Well, with one caveat: A few of the films focus on what life was like during the early days of the pandemic, which allows us to compare them to each other and to our own real-life experiences.

Leading off the collection is a work by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who actually inspired the entire project by making previous films under similar restrictions—though they were imposed by his country’s censorship rather than a pandemic. “Life” features the filmmaker and members of his family, including his beloved pet iguana, Iggy. Little happens except that his mother violates a stay-at-home mandate in order to pay a visit, though only after armoring herself with a hazmat suit and a spray bottle of disinfectant. The gently comic vignette is a reminder of the fears and deprivations much of the world experienced while first coming to terms with a once-in-a-century plague.

Even more deprivations are suffered by the young Chinese couple featured in the second film, “The Break Away,” directed by Singapore-born Anthony Chen. Stuck in their apartment and worried about money because the pandemic has sapped much of their income, the frazzled wife (Zhou Dongyu) gradually loses patience with her laid-back husband (Zhang Yu). Meanwhile, their young son is irritable because he can’t understand why he isn’t allowed to go outside. Like “Life,” the mini-drama contains reminders of the early misconceptions we all had about COVID-19 and how it’s spread.

The COVID theme shows up only briefly in the next short, Malik Vitthal’s “Little Measures,” which is the first of the collection’s three U.S. offerings. It focuses on Bobby Yay Yay Jones, whose attempt to regain custody of his three children has been delayed by the pandemic. Meanwhile, he keeps in touch with them electronically, their conversations being shown via small Facetime-style images. The piece is punctuated by Jonathan Djob Nkondo’s animation, which comes off as a superfluous addition.

COVID disappears almost entirely in “Terror Contagion,” directed by American filmmaker/journalist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour). Consisting largely of computer images taken from virtual meetings, it follows Poitras as she joins the group Forensic Architecture’s investigation into the Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO. Accompanied by Brian Eno’s creepy music, it evokes a feeling of paranoia as it talks of global surveillance and its potential dangers to individual freedoms. Both an impressive addition and a distraction from the rest of the collection since it’s such a change in tone, “Terror Contagion” probably would benefit from being expanded into a stand-alone documentary.  

Next, the anthology returns to COVID concerns with Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin Titulo,” which is about a Chilean woman (Francisca Castillo) who’s affected by the pandemic in two ways: Her vocal ensemble isn’t allowed to sing together in person, forcing her to record her part over the phone so that it can be joined with the others electronically. And, more painfully, she’s unable to see her newborn grandchild except at a distance. A difficult relationship with a rebellious daughter adds a bit more tension to this modest but beautifully filmed flick.

“Dig Up My Darling,” the show’s penultimate and spookiest piece, also deals with a pandemic—though it’s not clear just which one. David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) directs a silent Catherine Machovsky in the tale of a woman who hits the highway to take care of some long-unfinished business. It’s a mystery that’s more interested in creating an eerie atmosphere than in answering questions, several of which are deliberately left hanging at the end.

In fact, viewers may still be trying to answer those questions when new ones pop up during the final short, “Night Colonies.” Directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it focuses on three things: a mattress, fluorescent lights and lots and lots of bugs that are buzzing around said lights. Viewers might wonder whether all this is an oblique reference to the pandemic or its aftermath, especially when faded photos of people make a brief appearance. Generally, though, the film just comes off as an exercise in carefully composed sights and sounds, which will leave some mesmerized while others may wish Iggy the iguana would reappear and treat himself to a few flying treats.  

It’s a polarizing finale to a collection of inventive films that would work better as a whole if they were connected by more than just as set of production rules.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Year of the Everlasting Storm opens Sept. 3 at select theaters.